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On Sacred Autumn Sundays

Mike Person, a Montana-born lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, finds peace where trout dwell

"A Rise Upstream" by painter Brett James Smith.  Check out more of his work at brettsmith.com
"A Rise Upstream" by painter Brett James Smith. Check out more of his work at brettsmith.com
On Sundays in autumn when we northern Rockies denizens return to our rivers, re-wetting lines of connection in the cooling currents after months of usurpation by outsiders, Mike Person dreams of his homeland, too, but from afar. Such idylls help him still the nerves as he puts on his armor, preparing for battle in the truest American form of gladiator. 

On his afternoons, Person’s mind becomes intensely focused on repelling an invasion, this one a war over turf.  Hunched down in a three-point stance, squaring off against foes who want to pummel the colleagues behind him— and for whom he is paid handsomely to protect—Person ponders holes, though not the mellifluous, placid kinds that hold trout.

As a starting offensive guard for the San Francisco 49ers, Person’s job is opening up running lanes for ball carriers or buying quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo time to stand poised in the pocket. He knows success for the team comes down to something seemingly simple yet actually complicated and hard to execute—his ability to block. 

“From a standpoint of physics, we are the only guys on the field taking a hit or giving a hit 70 times a game,” Person says. “Those add up over the course of a season. Mondays I’m sore; Tuesdays really sore, and then, when Wednesdays roll around, it’s time to stop worrying about what hurts because we’ve got to get ready for Sunday.”

Bruised and bloodied week in and out, sacrificing his 300-pound frame to crunching hits, he’ll soak his weary muscles in ice baths, get deep tissue massages and take Ibuprofen to help make the pain go away before he does it all over again for four months until the season ends. 

What does his profession have to do with flyfishing, his expanding respect for wild places and doing right by his family?

As it turns out, everything
Photo courtesy Mike Person
Photo courtesy Mike Person
Person’s career in the trenches reminds him of contrasts—of Sundays' past, present and future. Where he escapes during the offseason, home water means peace but not quiet. Compared to the deafening roar of 70,000 fans, so loud it drowns out the quarterback’s cadence, there is solace in the hum of a river like the Yellowstone, Madison or Gallatin, he says. Wading into a bend casting, stripping line, mending, tying on a fake gnat with no one else around, no cheers or jeers, is an activity where Person can go to hear himself think. 

And listen.

He understands why clean water matters.

Flyfishing has trained him to be more instinctive, to read patterns on water, to move with ease and grace, rather than like a bowling ball knocking down pins.  No brawn or quarter ton squatting weights required to lay down a midge.  Typically, casters need not worry about blown out ACLs, concussions, broken fingers and torn rotator cuffs. And yet a parallel can be drawn between how a ball moves downfield and a trout navigates its linear sanctum.
Flyfishing has trained him to be more instinctive, to read patterns on water, to move with ease and grace, rather than like a bowling ball knocking down pins.
Many people have stereotypes when it comes to pegging football linemen, equating them almost to stolid members of a bison herd.  Person, the youngest of four siblings, is soft-spoken, contemplative and big-hearted, residing more on the laconic side of the spectrum than evincing any pretentious temptation to name drop who his employer is. 

That’s not how he was taught to impress people in Montana. “There is lot of pride when it comes to being from there and it is present from Libby [in the northwest part of the state] all the way down to Wibaux [in the southeast]. Every kid who grows up there feels it in some way but you’re not always aware of it until you’re gone,” he says. “Being from Montana, that’s more important than what you do.”

The power of geographic identification, he adds, has translated for him into greater inner strength on the gridiron.  He knows where he came from, the small town where he's simply known as "Mike."  Person never needed anyone to teach him how to meditate before games; it’s second nature, rooted in afternoons, sometimes following Sunday morning Catholic Mass when he and his buddies repaired to the river, using night crawlers bought at the local gas station to hook catfish and sauger.  By “the river,” he means the Yellowstone.  Down in the eastern part of the state, it's a different river from the one that rises just south of Yellowstone National Park and travels 692 miles, free of a major dam, before merging with the Missouri.
Person's catch, a golden dorado, while on a fishing trip to Argentina.  Photo courtesy Mike Person
Person's catch, a golden dorado, while on a fishing trip to Argentina. Photo courtesy Mike Person
Person grew up in remote Glendive only a few blocks from the Yellowstone’s banks lined with cottonwood trunks as big around as Greek columns. Amid high flows brought by snowmelt upstream in the distant mountains, springs along the Yellowstone brought the presence of rare ancient paddlefish.  Intake dam, outside of Glendive, is famous for being a place where people come to snag these descendants of primitive fish that were present during the time of dinosaurs.

Genes gave Person a leg up as a kid. Members of his clan are big framed. His father, who had played lineman at Montana Tech in Butte, taught history and coached the high school football team. His mom was a secretary at the church. The Persons always rooted for Notre Dame and his favorite player was Dan Marino, QB for the Miami Dolphins.

Person stood out and earned all-state honors on the o-line. Word gets around in Montana of promising emerging players, as every town with a Bobcat or Grizzly gridiron alum functions like a de-facto scout.  Person got recruited by former coach Mike Kramer and during his freshman season the Bobcats won the Big Sky Conference title with DeNarius McGhee at quarterback. Linebacker Dane Fletcher, a product of Bozeman, was a year ahead of Person and went on to play for the New England Patriots.

Person says the Bobcat coaches recognized him as a kid with raw talent that could be molded for the next level. When he first reported to campus, he was 6’4” “and extremely skinny” at 250 pounds, he says.  Redshirting Person his first year, Kramer assigned him to the weight room and cafeteria to bulk up. By the end of his college years he had reached his current playing weight of 300 pounds.

It wasn’t until Person decided to play at Montana State, he says, that he started to think about angling as a high art form. He gained a newfound appreciation for Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding ecosystem. He counts it as a favorite destination and it's where his family is constantly reminded why it's important to care about the environment. 

Part of the perk of being a Bobcat is having access to some of the best-known trout streams in the world. Flyfishing is something many players learn and it’s those memories that they take with them.  It’s uncanny how many pro athletes take up fishing to unwind. When Person talks about landing big browns and rainbows in the 49ers locker room, teammates pay attention; Montana, to some, sounds almost like a mythological place.
The angling skills Person honed while plying the waters of Montana have come in handy in stalking fish around the world.  Here he holds a trout landed in Argentina's Patagonia region.  Photo courtesy Mike Person
The angling skills Person honed while plying the waters of Montana have come in handy in stalking fish around the world. Here he holds a trout landed in Argentina's Patagonia region. Photo courtesy Mike Person
Because Montana State competes in NCAA Divison I FCS, Person had a lower profile coming out of college. He had amassed a solid reputation, having been named honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference in 2008, 1st team All-Big Sky in 2009 and 2010, and consensus FCS All-American as a senior, but he wasn’t considered a standout compared to players from bigger schools with a pipeline into the NFL.

The 49ers saw something. They selected him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, seeing him as a work in progress just as the Bobcat coaches once had.  Person, however, was released from the team just before the start of the 2012 season, setting off a whirlwind in which he had to re-commit himself often to making his dream happen. He was picked up immediately by the Indianapolis Colts and then waived 10 days later. 

Three days after that, the Seattle Seahawks signed him to their practice squad and he got promoted to the active roster six weeks later. [Bozeman high school product Will Dissly, a graduate of the University of Washington, plays tight end for the Seahawks today. Another Bozeman high school player, Brock Coyle, played for the Seahawks and 49ers, retiring from football in winter 2019, citing a broken bone in his back]. 

The following August, after training camp, the Seahawks released Person and three days later he was claimed off waivers by the then-St. Louis Rams but didn’t play.

In March 2015, Person signed with the Atlanta Falcons, started 14 games and then got released on October 2016 only to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs in early November. There he stayed until just after training camp in 2017. 

Some players might have hung up their cleats, but Person continued to work out, maintaining a rigorous physical fitness regimen and, when he was back in Montana, fishing whenever he could. Fishing kept his inner well filled up. In spring 2018, his expedition through the NFL came full circle when he was given a second chance by the 49ers. 

“It’s been wild and it isn’t the traditional path that most guys have taken to get to their teams. I’ve moved seven times in nine years and the person holding everything together at home has been my wife Kelly," he says. Together the Persons have three kids—Sean, Nora and Eli.

At 31, Person finds himself in the prime of his career. Click to enlarge.  Photo courtesy Mike Person
At 31, Person finds himself in the prime of his career. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy Mike Person
Playing pro football is notoriously dangerous to the body and with youngsters constantly nipping at the heels of veterans, hypercompetitive.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell once said the average career for active players who make the grade lasts six years. The NFL Players Association states the average is actually much lower, at only 3.3 years.

Either way, Person has defied the odds and gotten better each season, demonstrating an ability play guard or center. Analysts, loaded with statistics, say that linemen accrue more value with age, at least while in their late 20s to early 30s, because they become smarter. 

In 2018 Person truly came into his own, starting every game at right guard. The 49ers rewarded his performance and reliability late last winter with a three-year contract extension worth $9 million. 

He admits to still dealing with pre-game jitters. "They've never gone away," he says. 

Unlike some of his teammates, Person doesn’t crank loud music to get himself amped up. “I kind of sit back and retreat to a quiet place. It’s nice because all of the guys are respectful of each other’s game day routine. My ritual is to slowly build up my level of intensity through the morning so that when kickoff comes I’ve got the right mindset. It doesn’t work for me to blare music in a headphone.”

And what's one of the most peaceful visions he can imagine? Hint: it involves an activity that has something to do with water.  By the time he walks out onto the field, his mind, however, is steeled.

At age 31, Mike Person, wearing number 68, is indeed in the prime of confidence though he knows football won’t last forever. Does he worry about concussions? “It’s obviously a very hot topic right now, as it rightfully should be. Nowadays the technology is getting better and better. There won’t ever be the perfect helmet. It’s not something you think about while you’re playing. You know the risks that come with it.”

As a history and education major, he’s thought of teaching and coaching, like his dad. He also said he wouldn’t mind penning a flyfishing column for Mountain Journal. The family still has a cabin north of Butte. With the rivers around Bozeman getting crowded, he enjoys wandering the Boulder River. Planting a fly perfectly on the seam of a riffle, he says, is as amazing a feat to him as watching a perfectly-thrown spiral 60 yards into the outstretched hands of a receiver. “There’s beauty in both,” he says.
Planting a fly perfectly on the seam of a riffle, he says, is as amazing a feat to him as watching a perfectly-thrown spiral 60 yards into the outstretched hands of a receiver.
He can relate to the analogy offered by noted Bozeman writer Paul Schullery who once said, “Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.” He also observed, “If you aren’t a fisher, you’ll see many things, but the river, except where it is ridden by a waterfall or waded by a moose, will rarely enter your thoughts, much less stimulate your spirit. It’s different if you fish. The surface of the water tells a story.”

Person does fish, and it stimulates his spirit and it reminds him there’s always an abiding place where he can return, though for now fall fishing on Sundays in Montana will have to wait for a while.  Still he says the rivers have already given him stories to tell.

Like safeguarding his quarterback, clean water needs protection too.

Before Person signed off from the conversation, he was asked about the biggest thing he’s learned.  He paused and then answered, “If there are little kids reading this, they ought to know that if you don’t get that college athletic scholarship, if you don’t at first make the travel team, if you don’t stand out, it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “Trust me, I’ve been there. Keep that same feeling of determination you had in sports going or whatever it is you do, and bring it to other parts of your life. There’s not one route to success. The opportunities are out there; just be open to finding yours. Don’t let one setback define who you are.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Sounds of Silence: Why Quiet Places Matter is part of a new series at Mountain Journal, highlighting the meaning that wild lands, remote or close by, give to our lives.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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